Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Spirit of the Reformation

a sermon for Reformation Sunday on Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Romans 3:19-28
preached on October 30, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone

There’s something wonderful about remembering our history and celebrating where we have been. We had such a great day last Sunday as we celebrated 140 years of ministry in this congregation. Today we celebrate a milestone birthday for one of our members and think about the incredible gifts and lives that people bring to our community of faith. These and all the remembrances of our lives can and should inspire us to many, many more years of faithful life and living.

Today is actually another chance for us to remember our history as we celebrate Reformation Sunday. Today we especially remember that day in October 1517 when Martin Luther posted a list of his “95 theses” of complaint and petition to the doors of the church in Wittenburg, Germany. But Luther’s actions on that day were only a marker in a much larger movement that had begun before him and continued long after him. Luther himself didn’t walk away from the Roman Catholic church of his time but took many years to begin the branch of Christianity that now bears his name. With the rise of the printing press some years before, the text of the Bible had become more accessible to those who literate, and new ideas were more easily spread. Other church leaders of Luther’s time took advantage of a general sense of anger and frustration directed toward officials in Rome to build on the work of others who had been calling for a different way of being the church for centuries. Even some who remained in the Roman Catholic church sought to bring change to the institution that so many had rebelled and protested against.

All these saints encouraged the church to return to its roots, to clear out some of the accumulated baggage of 1500 years, to reclaim its identity in scripture, and to build the most faithful institution possible around these key tenets. And so new leaders emerged across Europe to give shape and form to this emerging way of faith and life in the particular contexts of that day and age. So today, nearly five hundred years later, as we celebrate this important shift in the history of the church – a shift that still shapes and forms our practice of life and faith today – I think we best remember these things by doing exactly what our forebears did and returning to the core principles of who we are by listening for the spirit of the Reformation.

Our two readings today do exactly that. First we heard the beautiful text describing the coming of the new covenant from the prophet Jeremiah. At their heart, these incredible words remind us that God is always seeking to be with God’s people in new ways. If one way of relationship doesn’t fit the need, God will keep trying until another one does. Jeremiah insists here that God changes minds and hearts and lives, that God breaks into our humanity to “be [our] God” so that we can be God’s people. To top it all off, God promises to be in relationship with each and every one of us – and all of us together – so that we can be renewed amidst our missteps and restored to life.

The apostle Paul picks up on much this same theme in our reading this morning from his letter to the church in Rome. Paul takes the prophet’s ideas of renewal and restoration and new life and connects them directly to the life and death of Jesus Christ. He suggests that the law of God cannot save but can only condemn, and so Jesus’ life revealed the full righteousness of God to sinful humanity. Paul declares that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” – and yet God’s grace becomes effective in us and through us in faith and brings us back into relationship with God. Paul insists that this is not any of our own doing – responsibility for all this belongs only to God.

These two texts bring us some of the key ideals of the great Reformation of the sixteenth century and bear the spirit of that time into our own, but they don’t always translate into our day and age right away. The spirit of the Reformation should always be before us, as one of the great principles that has emerged over the centuries reminds us: we are not just the church once reformed; we are also the church still being reformed according to God’s Word and Spirit. As we make our way into our 141st year of ministry in this congregation, we have to sort out what these things mean for us to make the spirit of the Reformation our own. What is it for us to reclaim these great ideals of relationship, self-sacrifice, and trust in God for the church and the world in 2011? How do we live out what we have learned about being in relationship with God in this changing time? How do we help others to see what we have seen and experience the presence of God in our world? Asking these kinds of questions is, I believe, the most faithful way we can be church together in this changing day and age.

Looking closely at what we are doing and how we are doing it to see how it fits into our new reality in Jesus Christ and our changing world is our greatest challenge – but also our greatest opportunity. Helping people sort out what it means to believe and have faith in 2011 and beyond ought to be at the center of our mission in these days. And all along the way, we must embrace the questions that will come up and honestly face the difficult decisions that come before us, for it is in those moments that we truly have the opportunity to embody the spirit of the Reformation in our own time and place.

So as we journey together in the coming months, as we face the change that is certainly coming our way, as we work to wind up some things that have occupied our minds too much lately, as we sell our beloved manse and purchase something new, as we make a new space for the work of the church in this building, may the spirit of the Reformation continue to call us to ask the tough questions, to sort out what it means to be the people of God in this time and place, to remain confident of God’s presence in the face of everything that changes around us, and to keep showing the face of God to everyone we meet throughout the good days and bad. Thanks be to God for this confidence, this hope, this challenge, and this way of life in faith together in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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God Sightings

a sermon for the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time on Exodus 33:12-23
preached on October 16, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone

If someone asked you to draw a picture of God, what would it look like? Would you draw some sort of human form? Would you make a picture of your favorite natural scene? Or would it be something else entirely, something more abstract, something more obscure, something more personal?

Humans have been trying to depict divine beings of all sorts for centuries. The Greeks and Romans of the ancient world built dramatic statues to show off their deities’ very human bodies. The Israelites got in big trouble with God for making a golden calf while Moses was receiving the Ten Commandment on Mount Sinai. And even in Christendom, artists have made countless depictions of Jesus, some hailed as beautiful additions to the history of art and our understanding of faith and others attacked and destroyed for attempting to paint what should not be painted. Nowadays we keep up our attempts to depict God. More than one blond-haired and blue-eyed man has been cast as Jesus on the big screen. James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman, two black men with deep, resonant voices, have been cast to speak as God. And the recent unexpectedly bestselling novel The Shack depicted the Trinity as an African American woman, a Middle Eastern carpenter, and an Asian woman.

So it’s quite natural for us to want to know more about what God looks or sounds like, to catch a glimpse of God in human form, to have a God sighting every now and then. These God sightings have been a part of our world for longer than we can know, and even the great man of faith Moses wanted to catch a glimpse of the great glory of God. In our reading from the book of Exodus this morning, we hear about this moment when Moses asked to see God’s glory and ended up with his own God sighting. While he was up on the mountain with God to receive the Ten Commandments a second time, Moses had an incredible heart-to-heart conversation with God. The exchange was incredibly human, sounding much like inquisitive banter between old friends, with Moses recognizing God’s considerable steps in guiding him and the Israelites to this point in their journey while also stating his very human desire to have a greater sense of God’s presence with him along the way ahead. Upon hearing Moses’ request for God’s continued presence, God responded with grace and mercy, promising, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

But Moses kept up the conversation, noting that he and the people of Israel could not get to the promised land  on their own – they needed a very present and real God to go with them. They needed to know God’s favor and see how God made them distinct from others, and without this assurance, Moses felt it was silly for them to go at all. His concerns were well-founded – the Israelites had done little more than complain about the food and the water all along the way so far, and he was on the mountain again with God because the people had been worshiping an idol under the guidance of his own brother Aaron and had already broken the covenant that God made with them. But even so, God again assured Moses of God’s continued presence with them along their journey to the promised land: “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”

All this conversation, though, seemed to be a prelude to Moses’ real question, his desire for a God sighting: “Show me your glory, I pray.” God didn’t walk away but instead offered one final promise to Moses: “I will make all my goodness pass before you… But you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live… You shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” So Moses followed God’s instruction and made his way out onto a rock, where he stood in a cleft of the rock. God covered Moses with God’s hand while God passed by, but then after God had passed, God’s hand was removed so that Moses could see God’s back.

This is truly such a great story – it’s not only great to know that at least one human being has had a real, honest-to-goodness God sighting, it’s also pretty incredible that Moses only saw God’s back side! Still, I can’t quite imagine a world where we see God in this very direct and human way. Sure, we say that we have seen God in Jesus Christ, but that was a one-time glimpse, and we only have the biblical witness to that God sighting and no eyewitnesses among us. The images of God that we do have leave so much to be desired – the old paintings of Jesus rarely speak to the contemporary world, and many people just don’t identify with any of the images and words of faith and belief at all. So the leap of faith involved in seeing God these days is pretty significant, and God doesn’t seem to show up quite so directly or often anymore anyway. But we are here in the church, either because we have experienced the presence of God before and want to experience it again or because we figure this is as good a place as any to have our first God sighting along the way.

I believe that we can reasonably expect to have that kind of encounter with God in our journey together in this place, but there is more to what we must do than just that. We need to be on the lookout for where God is present and at work in our world, for the places where God is already stepping in to change things and make things different, for the comfortable and uncomfortable places where God is embracing us or challenging us, for the dramatic and real presence of God not so much where we would most expect it but maybe where we would least expect it, maybe most in the longings of those in need, in cries of the poor, in the prophetic words calling out for justice. We also need to be ready to tell others about our experiences of God, to describe our God sightings in whatever form they take, to speak about how we have seen God at work in our lives and in our world, even to honestly speak about the times when we have doubted God’s presence in our midst. And most of all we need to be about showing God’s face to others, joining in those times and places where God’s presence is already visible and making it clearer, acting to embody the presence of God among those in greatest need, and living life in such a way that others might have a God sighting of their own in and through us. This is our greatest challenge but also our greatest hope – to keep our eyes open for God each and every day even as we embody God’s presence in our world so that others might also know the fullness of life that we have found along our journey.

So may God inspire us in our hearing and seeing and speaking and doing, that we might hear God’s voice directing us into the way ahead, we might see God’s presence in whatever way we need, we might speak of God’s presence so that others can hear, and we might join in doing and being and living in all the places where God is already present and at work to make all things new until he comes again.

Lord, come quickly! Amen.

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Converted to New Life

a sermon on Philippians 3:4b-14 for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
preached on October 2, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone 

Conversion stories are everywhere in Christian literature. You know how they go – someone starts out living a terrible, horrible life, with all sorts of sinfulness and worldliness, then that person is radically changed through a dramatic experience and comes to faith. We have them in the Bible and beyond – it seems that so many faithful people have wonderful stories to tell about how God has intervened and changed things in their lives.

The apostle Paul’s story is one of the greatest of all conversion stories. The book of Acts tells it from one perspective, and Paul himself tells it several other times in his letters to churches around the Mediterranean that are collected in the New Testament. In today’s reading from his letter to the church in Philippi, we hear a little of that story. Paul was a very faithful Jew, properly circumcised and raised in the tradition, with the right ancestry and perfect lineage in the tribe of Benjamin. He studied the Law at length, and from this knowledge he became a Pharisee and attacked the early followers of Jesus because he felt that they misinterpreted the Law.

But then something happened to Paul. He had an experience that changed everything. He doesn’t recount the details here, probably because the Philippians knew his story very well, but from the other tellings of it in the New Testament, we know that it was a dramatic encounter with Jesus himself long after Jesus had ascended into heaven, an encounter that left Paul blind for several days and may have even given him some sort of lifelong physical affliction.

This conversion experience changed everything for Paul. As he says in these verses, everything that Paul once counted in his favor he now viewed as rubbish, garbage, nothingness. He suffered the loss of all things because of Christ, and this new emptiness gave him the space to gain Christ, not that he could claim all this by his own doings but rather that God could fill him and share with him Christ’s faithfulness and righteousness.

But Paul knew that he was not yet completely filled in this way. He recognized that he still had a long way to go to make this way of life his own, yet he kept on trying to do all this “because Christ Jesus has made me his own,” as he said. Paul put aside the ways of his past life so that he could move forward into something new and different and real and complete in the days ahead: “Forgetting what is behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Like so many conversion stories, Paul’s story is an incredible one, a powerful witness to the transformation possible in and through the life of faith. While so many over the centuries have experienced this kind of conversion, many other faithful people have a less dramatic story of growing into the life of faith.

Take me, for example. I grew up in the church and never really stepped away from it. Conversion for me almost wasn’t even possible because I was grounded in the tradition from the very beginning – baptized as an infant,raised in Sunday school, active in the youth group and campus ministry, and a natural fit to go to seminary right away. If anything, I sometimes identify more with Paul’s life before his conversion than anything else! I’ve always felt connected to God and the community of faith and can’t really point to a single large moment of powerful transformation or conversion like Paul could.

For a long time, I wasn’t particularly comfortable with this, especially growing up in a culture in the deep South that insisted on a specific moment of salvation as part of an authentic Christian religious experience, but I’m grateful that someone once suggested to me the idea of a “nurturing conversion,” where we find transformation not in a single moment but rather over a lifetime of being nurtured into the life of faith. I know I’m not the only one who lives and feels like this  – others too have spent a lifetime trying to sort out what it means to be faithful in their lives, building on the faith they have had for a full lifetime and seeking to walk with God along all the changes and challenges of life and living even though they have never experienced the kind of dramatic conversion that Paul describes. I’m grateful that our Presbyterian tradition welcomes all of us, both those who have experienced a powerful moment of transformation and those who have been converted through the nurturing life of faith, but I still feel like I’m missing out on something sometimes because I don’t share that transformative experience.

So what do we do with all this? How do we connect Paul’s incredible experience from two thousand years ago to our own lives today? How do we make sense of Paul’s conversion alongside our own faith journeys? What does it mean for us to give up the things of our lives and find our real and true value and worth in Christ?

For me at least, I think this all begins when we open our minds to the possibility of transformation each and every day so that we can live into the new life we have in Christ. Whether we have experienced a powerful moment of conversion or not, God can still work a new thing in us and through us and around us and in spite of us. Whether we can identify firsthand with Paul’s experience of conversion or not, God can transform our lives by the power and faithfulness of Jesus Christ himself and remake us more and more in the image of the one who comes to make all things new. And whether we are new to faith and life or have seen many years in life and the church, we all have to keep trying day by day to make this our own, to sort out the meaning of the cross and the resurrection for us and our world, to share that experience with others along the way, and to trust that there is still more in store for all creation.

But the good news in all this amidst such varied experiences of conversion is that we are not alone. Whether we can point to a moment of radical conversion or have been converted over the whole of our lives, whether we identify with Paul or someone else, whether we have walked many miles along the road of faith or are just setting out on the journey, we are one family, one people, one church, following our one Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ, gathering around one font and one table where we can know his presence even today.

So we are not alone. We are not alone as we sort out our faith in our lives. We are not alone as we figure out what transformation and conversion might be for us and our world. We are not alone in seeking God’s glory and promise We are not alone in struggling to make the cross and resurrection our own. We are not alone in giving up the things of our past and of our world so that we can take on a new and shared identity with all those throughout time and around the world who follow our Lord Jesus Christ.

So today as we celebrate World Communion Sunday, a day when we particularly remember that whenever we gather at this table we gather with sisters and brothers all around the earth, we gather at this feast of celebration, not alone or with a few of our choicest friends but with the whole company of the saints in heaven and on earth, trusting that here Jesus is with us and makes us his own and will never leave us alone as we press on toward the goal of new life in him.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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